Sunday, 12 January 2014

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part Three

Oflag XX1-B  photographed in 1945 after it had been reopened as Oflag 64 and prisoners had left - Robert Keith  

Tunnel Asselin
In the final post around Long Tunnel Schemes, the Asselin tunnel (sometimes named after POW French Canadian Eddy Asselin who was in charge of the operation) could easily be described as ‘the pits.’ It is not a good mealtime read, but illustrates just what lengths POWs were prepared to go in order to try and break out of captivity. 

As per photo 1 - Robert Keith

Oflag XX1-B in Szubin Poland was a POW camp for officers and had been built in the grounds around a former school. Six brick barrack huts were positioned on either side of what used to be the playing fields. In September 1942, British and Commonwealth Officers of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm were transferred in from Oflag VI-B at Warburg following its temporary closure (see post ‘X and the Wire Schemes’). The POWs also included airmen from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other occupied countries serving in the RAF, as well as flyers from the Allied Air Forces - RAAF, RNZAF, RCAF, SAAF, USAAF. In October and November 1942 more British RAF Officers and NCOs arrived from Stalag Luft III to help relieve overcrowding there. As the war in the skies intensified, the inevitable steady stream of newly captured British, American and Allied Air Force Officers also arrived from Dulag Luft.
A hard core of regular escapers were soon in situ and began absorbing the geography and structure of the camp. They had no intention of staying. Just a few of them have been listed below. The names are formidable:
Lt Commander Jimmy Buckley - Had been Big-X

‘Wings’ Day, B A 'Jimmy' James and John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge - See previous posts

Flt Lieutenant B A 'Jimmy' James

RAF Sgt Per Bergsland - One of the three Great Escapers to later make a successful home run (see previous posts) - (Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario

Flt Lts Oliver Philpott and Eric Williams - Later escaped from Stalag Luft 111 via ‘The Wooden Horse’ and made it to Sweden

William Ash RAF 411 Squadron - American born pilot who relinquished his citizenship to join the RCAF and fly Spitfires. An iron willed and repeated escaper with unshakeable resilience and determination. Had endured numerous beatings and interrogation by the Gestapo. Later became a journalist and writer.


Flt Lt Peter Stevens RAFVR 144 Squadron - Habitual escaper and nuisance to the enemy - Claire A Stevens

PO Jorgen Thalbitzer RAF 234 Squadron - A Dane who had joined the RAF and changed his name to John Thompson to protect his family still living in Denmark.

RAF Pilot Robert Kee - In the thick of escape work. Historian and future author.

RAF Pilot Anthony Barber - Future politician and Lord Chancellor.

RAF Officer Aidan Crawley - In charge of security at Oflag X11-B. Author, County Cricketer and future MP -

RAF Squadron Leader Dudley Craig (left) - A number of breakouts resulting in recapture. Involved in ‘The Wooden Horse’ and Great Escape. One of the regular POWs using the vaulting horse whilst the digging went on below. Unable to get out of the tunnel in the Great Escape before it was discovered.

Conditions in the camp were grim, with poor rations apart from the lifeline of Red Cross parcels. There was jaundice, lice and the prisoners had minus 15 degrees of Polish winter to look forward to. Tunnelling during the main winter months was often restricted because of the weather, frozen ground near the surface and the chances of survival in the cold once out of the camp.
On the approach towards Christmas 1942 the POWs decided that possibilities existed for a tunnel to begin from the latrines, which were in a terrible state. The thinking focused around the guard’s likely reluctance to search and poke around to any degree in an open sewer that served the whole camp. The latrine building was around 150 feet from the wire, which meant a long tunnel. The practicalities and effects of working in the latrine area were less than palatable, but a decision was made to start the digging.
German microphones positioned in the ground to detect underground workings were not seen as a huge obstacle. The POW’s camp intelligence system had ascertained that any sounds of excavation during the daytime merged into the sound of POWs walking around above, because the microphones were too sensitive. It was decided to have regular groups of POW’s pacing about above and stamping their feet to try and get warm.

 Tunnel Method

 1) Sunk to a depth of seventeen feet below ground.

 2) Entrance made under the end toilet hole of the communal latrine. The last seat was beside a wall that divided the latrine building in two. This wall continued down under the concrete floor and separated an underground sump on one side from a huge sewage pit on the other.

 3) The diggers chipped away around the toilet base until the whole unit could be removed and put back quickly. It concealed the initial entrance which led to the main tunnel workings. The entrance hole was fashioned out to be just large enough for a man to crawl through.

4) A false section was created to the hole and disturbance in the dividing wall. This was removable and could be put in to conceal any activity if the Germans came in to the latrines.
5) In the underground sump, a large working chamber was excavated and the dirt pushed through into the latrine pit on the other side of the wall. This avoided the usual methods of disposing of tunnel dirt. Once the chamber was big enough for a man to work in, the tunnel proper was started. 
6) To enter the workings it was first necessary to squeeze through the hole where the toilet seat was, come within a few inches of the lake of sewage, wriggle through the hole in the wall and reach the chamber and tunnel entrance.

Working in virtual or complete darkness and barely being able to move in the stink and cling of clay or the filth which sometimes washed in from the latrines was hideous in itself, but William Ash described how the taste of the tunnel also filled the mouth when earth fell from an unshored part of the roof and the digger’s mouth was already open gasping for air.

Tunnel Size
Two feet square
Stooges (Lookouts)
1) General lookout system outside the latrines and tapered away to a suitable distance.
2) Stooge sitting authentically on the toilet seat guarding the tunnel entrance and ensuring no one used it whilst workers were below.
Digging Tools
1) Scoops made out of old tins
2) Home-made knives

Shifting the Dirt down the Tunnel
Large bag tied to a long piece of string. This was hauled back to the disposal team who scooped out the dirt with cans, throwing the soil into the main latrine, then prodding the contents around to mix them in. As the tunnel distance increased, men were positioned mid-way to take the bag and reposition it before being hauled back by a man at the entrance.
Bed boards from around the camp. Cave ins were frequent and POWs were approached to give up a bed board or more.


Thirty men on the project working in three shifts of eight. First shift would dig, second shift dispersed earth, (mostly in the latrine pit) and the third shored up and secured tunnel after the digging session. Progress was hindered by additional Appels from the usual two a day, which meant diggers often had to come to the surface and get cleaned up as best as they could to be ready for the ‘parade’ and checking off of names. Despite this, the team managed to hack out a few feet on some days. Diggers worked naked whilst in the tunnel.
Air for the Tunnel
1) An old army kit bag converted to bellows.
2) The air pipeline was made of dried Klim milk tins from Red Cross Parcels joined together (method later used in the Great Escape.)

Lighting long tunnels was always a problem as the length increased. Lamps fuelled by margarine were used with the wick from a boot lace.
Geography outside the Camp

1) Constructed and mapped as per standard systems covered in previous posts. E.g. views from inside the wire, camp intelligence information, specifics given by anyone who had escaped and been recaptured (after release from solitary confinement) and also details from new POWs coming into the camp.

2) Additional information was obtained following the death of one of the officer POWs. Wings Day as Camp Senior Officer was allowed to attend his funeral held with military honours in the nearby village. He memorised the surrounding area, passing the intelligence on to the escape committee and rest of the team.  

By the beginning of March 1943 the tunnel was almost ready, but reliable intelligence had been received that there were plans to move the prisoners to Stalag Luft 111. (some had been there before they were sent to Szubin). It made immediate completion of the work essential. The tunnel was completed by 3 March and a decision was made to move on the 5th as there was not much moon that night.
Numbers to Escape
As many men as possible to fit in the tunnel ‘head to toe’ for a few hours after evening Appel without suffocating. Given the physical numbers,  proximity to the main sewage pit, cess pool, latrines and size of the tunnel, there was no margin for error. Thirty three men would have to lie there in terrible conditions (half in the tunnel and half jammed into the cavern area near to the entrance), the only light being from margarine lamps if they managed to burn in the foul atmosphere.

Any cave ins would almost certainly  result in fatalities.
Those involved on the team would go plus John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge, 'Wings' Day and security chief Aidan Crawley. The men had all been equipped with various ‘civilian’ clothes and forged papers.

'Wings' Day- IWM

Major John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge - IWM
On 5 March after the last Appell at around five pm, the escapers gradually wandered towards the latrines either singly or in a gradual straggle. A rugby match was taking place as cover on the exercise ground nearby and none of the guards seemed to notice that fewer men were coming out of the latrine than went in. The men crawled into the two foot square tunnel wedged one after another in the darkness. The air being pulled in by the bellows came from the stinking latrine pit nearby and must have been indescribable. As the escapers lay waiting in the tunnel, the camp cesspool began leaking over them.

The final opening of the tunnel and fresh air must have been indescribable to the first few POWs waiting at the far end.


The tunnel opening came up clear of the wire, exactly where they had calculated. All thirty three prisoners got out and clear. An additional escaper followed in broad daylight the following morning before Appel when Squadron Leader Don Gericke a South African, noticed there were no signs that the tunnel had been discovered. He quickly located some escape rations, crawled down the tunnel and walked casually away trying to look like a local. He was soon recaptured. Thirty one of the thirty three were also captured, but some of the good German speakers covered significant miles before being apprehended. Two escapers were never taken. Former Big- X Jimmy Buckley and the Danish pilot Jorgen Thalbitzer were the two escapers not recaptured. The two men travelled together and managed to reach Denmark. Having been unable to board a ship, they were lost trying to paddle across to Sweden in a canoe on 29 March 1943. Thalbitzer’s body was later washed ashore, Buckley was never found. It is possible that they were struck in the dark by another vessel. 

Lt Commander Jimmy Buckley 
PO Jorgen Thalbitzer

An estimated 300,000 personnel were out searching for the escapers; soldiers, militia, police, Hitler Youth and civilians. In terms of disruption to the enemy, that tells its own story.
National Archives

Under the Wire – William Ash with Brendan Foley (highly recommended read)

Author’s notes
©Keith Morley

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